Homebrew Technology: The $US100 Aeroplane

Take an evening stroll through a park in Brooklyn, New York, and you might spot what looks like a luminous stingray whizzing through the air above. Follow it to its landing spot and you're bound to bump into Breck Baldwin and Mark Harder, two exhibitors from last week's Maker Faire who spend much of their time in an underground workshop building remote-controlled aeroplanes pretty much from scratch. Their plan is to wean people off shop-bought kits and get them freestyling when it comes to building model planes, getting creative with recycled materials instead.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the project is that the plane, remote controller included, costs under $US100 to build. The exact cost depends on what materials you can find lying around: "You can certainly improvise," says Baldwin, who has made planes from such unlikely materials as cardboard, laptop batteries and credit cards.

Although the duo's planes tend to be creatively decorated, it's the illuminated night-flying planes that really capture the attention and imagination of passers-by (see video). The idea originated from an installation for the annual Burning Man festival held in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, for which the team wanted to create an above-ground coral reef effect at night.

"I wanted 50 night-flying aeroplanes in the same space, and I thought it was easier to teach 50 people to build and fly than recruit that many model aeroplane pilots," says Baldwin. "So the plane had to be cheap, robust, quick to build and a good flyer."

The result is a plane that even a child can build. It takes only three hours to put together, and all the instructions and materials are clearly explained on the Brooklyn Aerodrome website.

However, according to Baldwin, the hardest part is learning to fly your plane, which will require patience and a certain level of detachment from your masterpiece: crash landings are inevitable. "The plane has the name 'Towel' because of how it looks after it has crashed a bunch of times," he says. "One evening I was launching a particularly beat-up plane and someone commented that it looked like I was trying to launch a wet towel. The name stuck."

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